NEW YORK CITY—Hey, remember when nobody talked about sex? Of course not; you're much too young. Sure, everybody thought about it back in the 1960s, and Madison Avenue put something sexy into just about every ad it turned out, but it was still largely a taboo subject in what was then known as "polite conversation."
Well, Helen Gurley Brown went a long way to changing all that, at first through the publication, in 1962, of her novel Sex and the Single Girl, which according to the New York Times obit, "taught unmarried women how to look their best, have delicious affairs and ultimately bag a man for keeps"—hardly the (eventual) feminist ideal, but incredibly liberating for all the young women whose parents (and clergy and some peers) browbeat them continually about the necessity of "staying pure" until marriage—and later through her stewardship of Cosmopolitan magazine, which earlier had employed her husband, David Brown, as its managing editor.
(In a sort of updated "Single Girl" volume, titled The Late Show, Brown advised older women that as they age "and the supply of available men dwindles, they should simply appropriate their friends' husbands for jaunty recreational sex.")
It took just two years for Brown's first novel to be made into a Hollywood hit, with Natalie Wood as the semi-daffy, semi-liberated author and Tony Curtis as a scandal-mag writer intent on proving her a hypocrite ... until, of course, he falls in love with her.
Brown's tenure at Cosmo began in 1965, and she quickly took the magazine from staid to sexy, revamping everything from its covers (which now featured voluptuous women often displaying their bodacious cleavage) to its contents. Gone were articles on whether your kid will inherit diabetes, replaced with musings about the "World's Greatest Lover" ... and centerfolds featuring then-popular males like Burt Reynolds and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Her changes took the magazine from roughly an 800,000 monthly circulation to nearly 3 million when her tenure there ended in 1997.
"A million times a year I defend my covers," Brown said. "I like skin, I like pretty. I don't want to photograph the girl next door."
A motto on her wall at Cosmo opined, "Good Girls Go to Heaven, Bad Girls Go Everywhere."
The Village Voice's Michael Musto described what it was like to write for Cosmo:
"You'd go into the Managing Editor's office and come upon a mass of file cabinets you were asked to look through," he wrote earlier today. "You'd pull out the file cabinet drawers, one at a time, and look through the hundreds of index cards, which had a multiplicity of story ideas typed on them. Ideas about culture, entertainment, society, and mores. You'd find one that appealed to you, and voilà—that was your assignment."
But despite her calls for a certain amount of sexual liberation, many prominent feminists considered her to be too establishment, pushing women to seek essentially Photoshopped body images and encouraging the use of "feminine wiles" to acquire money and societal position.
"Having a man is 50 percent of living," Slate columnist David Plotz reported Brown as opining. "Never refuse to make love, even if you don't feel like it," she recommended in her 1982 best seller, Having It All. Critics dismissed Cosmo as "bitchcraft." Betty Friedan called it "quite obscene and quite horrible. It embraces the idea that a woman is nothing but a sex object."
Still, Brown, who'd worked in advertising from 1948 to '62, is said to have been the role model for Elisabeth Moss's character on Mad Men, and it's apparently no coincidence that most of the women on the hit TV show Sex and the City drink Cosmos. In short, her influence on American sexual culture can hardly be underestimated.
Helen Gurley Brown died today at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center after a brief illness. She was 90.